Featured Image: Lucas Cranach the Elder, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, 1530. Oil on linden, 35 1/4 x 24 3/8 in. (89.5 x 61.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Judith is one of my all-time favorite subjects in art. Every museum I visit, I always try to find a version of her story rendered in painting, sculpture, or otherwise. I find her to be a powerful force, adaptable to any period and fiercely relevant. This post focuses on some of my favorites that I have seen, and some of the various ways her story has been interpreted, particularly in painting. I was prompted to write about her now by a most recent painting of Judith that I found at the Walters Art Museum during a short trip to Baltimore.
The History of Judith
Judith is a complicated historical and religious figure who appears in both Judaism and Christianity on varying terms. In the Book of Judith, initially found in the Greek translation of the Old Testament,* Judith was a Jewish widow who seduced and murdered the leader of the Assyrian army, Holofernes, ending a siege and saving Israel.
Many of the images that we see of Judith either revolve around the action of beheading the general or the aftermath of the act. In the hands of some of the greatest artists who ever lived, these two perspectives lend itself to some of the most terrifying, beautiful, and memorable works of art.
Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes (1598-9)
The story of Judith first came to my attention while I was researching Caravaggio’s body of work during a study abroad trip to Italy in 2013. I came across his version at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in Rome, an intensely theatrical scene, bubbling with the drama that art historians have come to expect from his work.
The most dramatic moment of the story is shown here–Judith in the act of beheading Holofernes. With a simple composition, Caravaggio leads the viewer into an immensely dark background, spotlighted from the bottom left to emphasize the action that is unfolding. Judith sits at the center of the composition so that the cutting off of the general’s head is laid bare before the viewer’s eyes. Holofernes is scantily clad–lying on crumpled white sheets, a stark contrast to the spurts of blood emanating from the gash in his neck as the scimitar (a traditional weapon of the Assyrians) liberates his head from his body.
What is truly striking about this image and speaks to the nuance of Caravaggio’s depiction is the contrast in emotions between Judith, Holofernes, and Abra, Judith’s maid and accomplice in this heinous act. The utter beauty and out-of-place serene look on Judith’s face are unnerving compared to the shock and fear shadowing Holofernes’s face– his eyes bulge, his veins protrude, and he grips tightly to the sheets as if it will prevent life from leaving his body. Abra, to her left, wears a look of confidence on her face, coaxing the young girl into finishing the deed. The emotional weight of the act seems to linger not on Judith’s face, but instead between Holofernes, the victim, and Abra, the coaxer.
A courtesan as the heroine
This Judith of Caravaggio’s imagination no longer resembled the virtuous heroine represented by predecessors like Donatello, whose bronze statue of Judith and Holofernes (see below) made for the Medicis once stood on the Piazza della Signoria, serving as a symbol of Florentine might over foreign invasion. Caravaggio’s use of Filide Melandroni, a famed Roman courtesan, emphasizes Judith as a more sexual being. The fiery yet beautiful Filide was known for her passion and temper and was often in trouble with the law. In one such incident with a rival courtesan, Prudenza, Filide was reported to have threatened “I want to cut you! I want to cut you!”** She is given a chance to do that just in this scene conjured up by her friend, Caravaggio.
Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes (1612)
Artemisia Gentileschi’s dynamic depiction of Judith’s tale is by far my favorite of all. What Caravaggio’s version lacks in emotional fortitude is taken to new heights in Gentileschi’s painting less than 20 years later. The Judith of Gentileschi’s imagination is not a femme fatale, but a femme forte, part of a motif known as the women worthies,*** images that celebrated female heroines of the past who were of equal strength and skill to their male counterparts (see woodcuts by Hans Burgkmair below).
Artemisia’s innovative retelling of an almost exhausted story surpasses the standard set by Caravaggio years earlier with her incorporation of the femme forte motif. While both Gentileschi’s and Caravaggio’s versions deal with the action of the murder itself (unlike aftermath versions done before and after Gentileschi’s by Giorgione (1), Cristofano Allori (2) and Elisabetta Sirani (3)), Gentileschi’s compositional changes strengthen not only the participation of the two women, Judith and Abra, but places the painting squarely into the tradition of the women worthies motif.
Gentileschi looked to the text of the Book of Judith to set the arrangement for the scene: “And [she] approached to his bed, and took hold of the hair on top of his head, and said ‘Strengthen me, O Lord God of Israel, this day.’ And she smote twice upon his neck with all her might, and she took away his head from him.”***
Gentileschi creates a tight composition; the three figures form an inverted triangle balancing on its point, ensuring that the myriad of entangled limbs and body mass inflict weight and agency on one another. Judith’s arms are locked at the elbows, her right hand grips the murder weapon tightly, while a fistful of hair occupies her left. A lasered focus on the use of the arms and hands are in stark contrast to that of Caravaggio’s Judith, who fails to convince the viewer that her weakened stance and distance from Holofernes’ body would be able to register any force of consequence (see comparison below).
The cartoonish, yarn-like ribbons of blood that strew from Holofernes’ neck in Caravaggio’s version should be a vital detail to further bolster the gravity of the scene, but it pales in comparison to Gentileschi’s blood-soaked mess. Gentileschi’s thoughtful pattern of red that darts in various directions invokes spurting, dripping, and pooling blood at the end of the bed–remnants of a deed that required a great deal of bodily exertion.
Tromphime Bigot’s Judith Decapitating Holofernes (c. 1640)
I almost missed seeing this painting, and if it weren’t for a quick jaunt into the Walters Art Museum gift shop, I would’ve missed it entirely, and this post would not have happened.
Tromphime Bigot was a Baroque artist hailing from Arles who worked in both Rome and Provence in the 17th century. For a long time, before being identified as Bigot by British art historian Benedict Nicolson, he was known as the Master of the Candlelight, working in a similar style to more well-known George de La Tour. **** Many art historians believed for a time that there were two Tromphime Bigots, a father and son team that worked in both markets, but in the end, there was only one Bigot, who adapted his intimate candlelit scenes to fit the tastes of clients in Rome and Provence.
His Judith Decapitating Holofernes at the Walters Art Museum can be seen to take compositional elements from both Caravaggio and Gentileschi to create an equally compelling work of art. Similar to Gentileschi’s, Bigot’s composition is quite intimate–the two women flank each side of Holofernes’ body with Abra holding down one of his flailing arms and providing a light source so that Judith can quietly get to the task. The serenity of the scene and soft, beautiful facial expressions are reminiscent of Caravaggio’s version, and despite the action so close to the viewer, the urgency and grisly nature of the act, vividly brought to life in Gentileschi’s Judith, is missing. Bigot also borrows the lush velvet curtain from Caravaggio, drawn back as if the viewer has arrived in the middle of a drama unfolding on stage. The detail of blood, prominent in both versions by Caravaggio and Gentileschi, is barely visible.
The Visual Legacy of Judith in the 17th Century
Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes is no doubt a beautifully haunting work of art; it is lit dramatically and staged to incite horror at the gruesomeness of the scene. It is a study in beauty– the golden-haired, milky-skinned juxtaposed against the saggy, aging crone, but in the end, Caravaggio traps Judith in a trope associated with sexuality by linking her with the famed courtesan Filide Melandroni as a model.
Gentileschi’s interpretation of Judith is an important painting in her body of work, not only for the technical mastery of chiaroscuro and innovative composition but for the use of those elements to place Judith back into the exalted status within the women worthies motif.
Bigot’s contribution to this group is a breathtaking study in the use of a single light source to create and mold the figures in a scene. Despite the absence of the gravity of the act on display, Bigot’s mastery of candlelight as it bathes his characters and breathes life into them is a reward in itself.
* While the Book of Judith is accepted by the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Assyrian Churches of the East as part of the canon, the book is excluded from Jewish texts and considered apocryphal (of uncertain origin) by Protestant faiths. “Holofernes’s Canopy in the Septuagint.” In Kevin R. Brine, Elena Ciletti and Henrike Lähnemann (ed.). The Sword of Judith. Judith Studies across the Disciplines. Open Book Publishers.
**Andrew Graham Nixon, Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane (London: Penguin Books, 2010) pg 182.
***Mary D. Garrard, The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 145.
****Anthony Blunt, Richard Beresford, Art and architecture in France, 1500-1700 (Yale University Press, 1999 edition), p. 291.